The Modern Knight

principles | PURPOSE | perspective

Can Deadly Force Be Made Less Deadly?

Combat is ugly. Violence perpetrated on another human being, particulary when delivered with enough force to kill is hard to watch. Sometimes violence is evil, sometimes violence protects us from evil, sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference.

In a misguided attempt to make lethal force less lethal New York legislators have proposed a law (A02952) to change “how a police officer responds when he believes he must use his gun to defend himself or another, or to apprehend a suspect who is resisting arrest. It requires the officer to use his weapon with the intent to stop, rather than to kill such a person”

The proposed law will include a definition of felony manslaughter as “a police officer or peace officer who kills a person by use of a loaded weapon, for a purpose otherwise justified by law, with the intent to kill, rather than stop, such person, and beyond the minimal amount of force necessary to stop the person.”

The memo from the State Assembly gives some examples to help determine whether a police officer is intending to kill or stop an offender:

There is no justification for terminating another’s life when a less extreme measure may accomplish the same objective. For example, an officer would have to try to shoot a suspect in the arm or the leg. The bill will not penalize a good faith effort to shoot with this intent, even though the shot may prove fatal. Further, the number of times an officer shoots a person should not exceed the minimal number necessary to stop the person. If one shot accomplishes the purpose, it is neither necessary or appropriate for an officer to empty his barrel.

The idea that a police officer should be trained to respond to an armed confrontation with a single well placed bullet into the arm or leg of an offender is absurd. To suggest that an officer who uses more force than this could be a felon is frightening. Not only is it apparant that the authors of this bill know nothing of armed combat, the last sentence on when it is “appropriate for an officer to empty his barrel” shows they lack a basic understanding of firearms.

The warriors reading this far do not need any further commentary – you can see the folly and are either furious or in disbelief over this proposed law, but it is not uncommon for civilians to respond to police involved shootings with the question this bill poses, “Why not just shoot the guy in the arm or leg?” An issue addressed early in police or military training, but deserving of an answer for the many without benefit of that kind of training or experience.

According to Force Science News, here is why shooting to wound doesn’t make sense scientifically, legally or tactically:

  1. Hands and arms can be the fastest-moving body parts. An average suspect can move his hand and forearm across his body to a 90-degree angle in 12/100 of a second, his hand from hip to shoulder height in 18/100 of a second.
  2. The average officer pulling the trigger as fast as he can requires 1/4 second to discharge each round.
  3. There is no way an officer can react, track, shoot and reliably hit a threatening suspect’s forearm or a weapon in a suspect’s hand in the time spans involved.
  4. Even if the suspect held his weapon arm steady, the suspect and his weapon are seldom stationary. Plus, the officer himself may be moving as he shoots, so an accurate hit would be unlikely.
  5. The upper arms move more slowly, but there’s a greater chance you’re going to hit the brachial artery or center mass with a high probability of fatality.
  6. Legs tend initially to move slower than arms, however, areas of the lower trunk and upper thigh are rich with vascularity, again a higher probability of fatality.
  7. If an officer manages to take a suspect’s legs out non-fatally, that still leaves the offender’s hands free to shoot. His ability to threaten lives hasn’t necessarily been stopped.

Police officers are trained to deliver as many rounds into the “center mass” of the target as necessary to neutralize the threat. This is the most effective way to stop the offender and the best way to ensure that the officer will survive. It is true that this target area does bring the greatest likelihood of a fatal wound, but the death of the suspect is not the objective; stopping the threat, protecting others and the survival of the officer are.

An expertly placed round fired into the gun-hand of a villain followed by his hasty surrender may look great on TV, but it is reckless and dangerous to expect it from police officers in the real world.

The next post will consider this question from the Christian perspective. Can the use of deadly force be reconciled with the Biblical Commandment?

Thou shalt not kill
Exodus 20:13 (KJV)


Add a Comment
  1. Great Article. The only thing I would like to emphasize is Exodus 20:13 means:

    “Thou shalt not commit MURDER”

    To kill in defense of self or others is not a sin.

  2. Thanks for commenting, your emphasis is correct. The King James version translates to “kill” but it correctly refers to “murder.” I hope you will read the next post on the topic and share your thoughts.

  3. Thank you! Great website!


    The use of force and the need to comply with the Constitution, state statutes, department policy and training; compliance with the first three is dependent upon the adequacy of the fourth: Training. The split-second decision made by an officer in a tactical situation does not permit him/her the luxury of reviewing the Bill of Rights, the state’s penal code and case law, and his department’s manual. That split-second decision is based on his training, and often is tempered by stress, anger and fear. The application of training and the effects of emotions cannot be learned from a book or a classroom chair.

    The reasonableness of an action is based on the totality of circumstances. But that concept — the totality of circumstances — is as vague and ambiguous as “probable cause.” How can we develop a set of policies specific enough to guide an officer in every possible situation? We cannot.

    Any attempts to do so will force us to fall back on ambiguous, vague and ill-defined adverbs and adjectives such as necessary, probable and reasonable. Even the term force is poorly defined.

    How, thus, can we train for “the totality of circumstances” as they might occur in all incidents?

    We cannot. We cannot predict and describe “the totality of circumstances” of every possible situation. We cannot teach tactical decision-making solely as a body of knowledge to be learned from books as in a college classroom, or exclusively as a skill to be learned in a hands-on defensive tactics class. The best we can do is, through frequent and realistic training, instill in the officer a framework of ethics and boundaries within which he/she can make good, proper and legal decisions, automatically and instantaneously.

    Sound knowledge of Constitutional law, state law, and department policy and procedure, is a necessary foundation. In fact, it is an essential part of the “totality of circumstances.” It is Police Work 101, and should be learned thoroughly before a recruit ever meets an FTO. Ideally the foundation would be learned in pre-service college courses and reinforced in the basic academy. But the structure to be built on that foundation – – that cannot be designed in a textbook or manual or classroom. We can give the officer tools and guidelines, but we cannot possibly direct him/her specifically on what “structure” will take shape in every situation. A “totality of circumstances” is too mushy (and too accurate) to allow for a “one-size-fits-all” set of rules.

    So what can we do?

    First of all, discard any idea that roll-call training or an annual in-service refresher/advanced officer course will suffice. Training on use of force must be considered a process, not an event. Nor can it be given any priority less than top. Any administrators who risks, for budgetary reasons, not to train his officers would likely face better odds of winning at a gambling casino. Failure to thoroughly train inherently endangers human life. The ability to make a proper use-of-force decision is like a muscle; it must be used and exercised regularly or it will atrophy . . . or never develop at all. Frequent, hands-on, realistic, role-play training in a simulated tactical environment is required. Every officer empowered to make an arrest – from the department head to the newest recruit – should undergo such training on a regular basis. I recommend at least bimonthly. The awesome power to legally deprive a person of his liberty, or to take human life, deserves nothing less. The need transcends — trumps — budgetary constraints, union contracts and inconvenience. Proper training is defensible; inadequate training is inexcusable.

    Secondly, recognizing that no training can possibly cover every possible “totality of circumstances,” the role-play situations should include a wide variety of ever-changing “what-if” situations. Historical incidents, especially those in which officers made poor choices or were themselves killed, should be analyzed and recreated as realistically as possible. A wide variety of simulated situations should be used, including those for which there is no single “right” solution. Each simulation should be followed by an honest and objective critique by the officers and instructors.

    The goal of such training is not to amass training hours or meet a state standard. Rather, the objective is to cause every officer to develop that internal framework of ethics and boundaries that will enable him/her to make critical decisions instantly and well, based on the unique and dynamic “totality of circumstances.”

    Third, we must understand and admit that an officer’s best possible decision may lead to public outrage, protest and criticism. The use of force by police is seldom understood by the public or accurately reported by news media. Public reaction to force is emotional and never based on a thorough knowledge of facts, law or “the totality of circumstances.” People react with strong feelings but little understanding to television news and brief reports in the printed press. We must realize that police in a democratic society will occasionally be vilified for doing their job, even when doing it well. We should never allow public opinion to divert us from doing the right thing.

  4. Well put Dino and spoken like a real sheepdog. You tapped into the precise reasons that bad legislation like this comes to exist. Decisions being made with a lack of knowledge (your first point) based on a limited understanding of what is seen and heard (your third point). Thanks for posting and stay safe!

  5. Hi Kevin,
    I just wanted to let you know that your site was named to the Top 50 Criminal Justice Blogs at: because we think your site provides great information for those interested in police careers.

    If you would like to put your award badge on your site, you can grab the html code from the aforementioned page.

    Best wishes and thank you for your service,
    Charles Sipe

The Modern Knight © 2010-2016 Frontier Theme